Poker without background music is a bit like driving a three-wheeled car, or braving Bieber without auto-tune: It'll still 'work', but it's hardly GTO!
In fact, I'd argue that just about everything's better with music. To Shakespeare, it was 'the food of love', the ancient Greeks considered it 'a gift from the gods', and to just about every loved-up teenager in the world, it's mandatory in drowning out the soppy sounds of canoodling coming from a musky bedroom. A decent poker playlist can make a 12-hour grind feel more like a … well, a 10-hour grind or something... whatever. You get my point!
As philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche remarked, 'without music, life would be a mistake'. And if you've ever taken your headphones off mid a silent disco, you'll know exactly what he means. I was in charge of running one at university once. Trust me, watching 200 people 'Gangnam style' in silence is as weird as wearing socks with sandals.
Music definitely has a place in the poker world, but what exactly does that look like? Well, let's break it down (pun intended!).
Table of Contents
The Gambler - The Ultimate Poker Song
Kenny Rogers: 1979
Perhaps the most famous candidate of all time; no article would be complete without mentioning this classic. t's such an anthem! Were you to ask anyone to name a poker song, even the most extreme of muggles would be able to recite The Gambler's infamous chorus. “You've gotta know when to hold'em, know when to fold'em...” It really is the quintessential poker anthem.
One of the most seductive things about The Gambler is how old school it is. On a few occasions, I was lucky enough to sit and have a drink with the late Dave 'The Devilfish' Ulliot. Like a kid (or man-child like me), perched on the edge of his seat in the closing stages of a Fortnite run, I used to sit, hanging on Dave's every word. He would recite old-school poker stores of intoxicatingly wild and cut-throat poker industry. Similarly, Doyle Brunson also has some great stories of guys storming into underground games with shotguns and ski-masks. I'd recommend watching some of his interviews.
The world of old school poker was dangerously fascinating and terrifying. Whereas I'm glad this kind of gunslinging is avoidable in modern poker (and as pathetic as I'd be at being part of it), this history and heritage are so significant. It still adds an undertone of swag to the game we love.
Simply put, the old school badasses are the reason poker's cooler than chess!
The Gambler's Musical Nostalgia
When listening to The Gambler, it's hard not to picture the 19th-century saloon games we see littering Hollywood cowboy cinema. The song has that rough, authentic vinyl sound, and the video even opens with Rogers himself dressed as a wealthy western gentleman, with two six-shooters slung over his shoulder. It's easy to imagine Rogers sitting at a small, saloon cash game table. The game is destined to regress into a stool-smashing brawl after countless whiskeys have been slid the length of the bar. He looks as bad ass as every poker player thinks they do today.
Despite being released at least a century the time of the 'cowboys', The Gambler really is an excellent reminder of one of the coolest and excitingly periods in poker's history. It was a time of outlaws and gunslinging; of Billy the Kid, Jesse James and Butch Cassidy; of train robbing and cattle hustling. It doesn't get much wilder than the 'Wild West'. I think the thrill-seeking 11-year-old within all of us still identifies as this kind of maverick whenever we sit at the poker table.
When listening to such a classic, it's as hard not to get lost in fantasy as it is to consider how things have evolved within the poker world. With protected casino and online games, we're kind of spoilt these days, and so it's easy to take the safety of modern poker for granted.
In a world of HUDs, solvers, and GTO nerds, the game may have come a long way since the days of 'know[ing] when to run', but it's still a joy to lose yourself in Rogers' nostalgic cinematic fantasy for the three and a half melodic minutes of The Gambler.
3 Clever Ways Poker Cinema Uses Music
Positive Musicality in Rounders (1998)
Music is almost as important to cinema as the plot. Well, that might be a slight exaggeration, but, even if so, it's definitely a crucial part of what those in the industry call 'Mise en scène' (There's a term to make you look cool at parties...). If used well, music can achieve wonderful things: It can build suspense, add comedy, titillate and terrify.
Unsurprisingly, casinos are a staple of poker cinema, and cardrooms are typically portrayed as sexy and exciting places onscreen. Therefore, poker films tend to associate a lot of upbeat and engaging instrumental music with them (especially during winnings streaks). In fact, the use of music in poker movies is actually pretty impressive, but, since most people are focused on the action, it often goes unnoticed.
The opening poker scene in Rounders is a great example. Here, John Dahl (the movie's director) cleverly uses slick, mysterious music when explaining the rules of Hold'em. It's sophisticated and upbeat, which turns what is essentially a boring rule explanation into something far more fun and engaging. The slickness adds the same lux and swag that brings much of the allure to high-stakes poker, enabling the audience to share the fantasy.
Of course, when Mike loses to Teddy's 'Ayses fool', Dahl predictably (and effectively) pulls out the violins. But generally speaking, Rounders tends to associate poker with this kind of sophisticated yet energetic music.
“But why?” You may ask:
Well, as any of you familiar with the mind control technique, known as NLP will understand (Derren Brown's social experiments are among the most famous examples). Subtle audio can have insane powers of persuasion and influence. The positive musicality we see (or hear) in a lot of poker movies allows the director to portray the game as fun and exciting.
Positive music builds positive connotations, and this helps to dissolve any negative poker stereotypes. As a result, the audience begins to see the game as an asset rather than a hindrance, which helps get the theme on the same page as the movie's hero (pun intended).
As you might expect, we see this kind of thing regularly elsewhere in poker cinema. Along with the aforementioned Rounders, (Like when Mike turns to 'rolled up aces of kings' after his girlfriend leaves him, or after he 'traps' the questionably accented Teddy 'KGB'), movies such as Lucky You, Runner Runner, and Maverick all use the same technique throughout.
Watch them and keep an eye out for it – It's fascinating... As you can tell, I'm also a blast at parties!
Casino Royale: Sharing The Sweat
It might not be the most believable poker story in the world. It may be riddled with bet sizing flaws, structural lunacies and poor poker etiquette (and also have the brutalist of bad beats). But it doesn't get much worse than losing millions of dollars with a full-house and then literally being killed! Casino Royale (2006) definitely includes smart use of music during its poker scenes.
Bond movies often take us to the most luxurious of locations, and with this often comes soothing and subtle background music. Typically centring around low-key string-bands or melodic harpists, Bond movies use highly sensual atmospheric music to help set the scene. It's no accident that this isn't the case in Casino Royale!
Interestingly, despite the apparent lux of the location and cardroom (there's a click prompted butler for crying out loud!), the casino floor is in silence. There's not a single note of atmospheric music or ambient melody in sight. Instead, director Martin Campbell takes a more unconventional approach to things, making use of high pitched, violin-heavy music and eerie screeching sounds. It's a style more typical of a slasher or horror movie. It's a great way of adding an element of discomfort and tension to a scene, and it's really effective.
In the same way that horror films use these sounds to instil fear and heighten the senses, Casino Royale's use of this technique is an excellent way of portraying the tension and unpredictable suspense of being in a big hand. In an instant, you gasp, the hairs on your neck stand up, and your stomach to drops to the floor. Just as if you were sat at the table, your heart sinks, and you panic momentarily.
It's like you're there, and it's a genius use of music.
Given its effectiveness, it's unsurprising that this method appears elsewhere in poker cinema. The violin screech in The Cincinnati Kid's final poker scene would be another (less subtle) example.
I really love this technique. We all know the feeling of fighting off yawns as we've feigned interest in bad-beat stories in a tournament re-buy queue.
It's hard to feel the interest and passion of poker when playing hands vicariously, but, though this audio technique, Casino Royal manages to bridge the gap.
Maverick and Music
Compared to most casino games, poker is pretty slow – Tournaments, in particular, involve short spells of excitement surrounded by painfully long periods of boredom. As you might expect, this doesn't really translate to the big screen very well. (If you've ever watched a live stream without commentary, you'll see why!).
Generally speaking, poker cinema excels at adding music to montage to spice things up a little. We've already discussed this in Rounders, and how Lucky You does similar at various points too. However, I think we need to give a special mention to the music used in Maverick.
What Maverick does so well is combine all of the techniques we've discussed so far. Positive music is used to demonstrate the excitement and fun that only poker players can understand. Fanfares and suspenseful shrills help the poker muggle understand whether that happening to the hero is good or bad.
As a result, the music used in Maverick removes the need to have any knowledge or understanding of poker. To put it simply, the music in Maverick is intelligent enough to turn a poker movie into a universal family film. It's a great film. I'd definitely recommend watching it.
Unfortunately, a complete investigation into the use of music in poker cinema would probably take an entire book, and alas, my article brief means I must move on. But hopefully, these examples give you an idea of both how powerful music can be, and its significance within poker cinema.
Anyway, with 'moving on' in mind, here's a little more light-hearted look at how poker crops up in mainstream music.
Poker In Mainstream Music
Celine Dion: It's All Coming Back to Me Now - 1996
Losing a pot to a splashy table whale is super frustrating. This little number by Celine is an excellent way of settling things down and reassuring yourself that you'll get it all back eventually... assuming he's not 'gone with the wind of course!'
Daft Punk: Get Lucky - 2013
In my teens, it meant rocking my best dance moves in a bar to try to impress a girl. These days, though, being 'up all night to get lucky' is more about booting up a late session and hoping for a deep MTT run!
Status Quo: Down, Down - 1974
If you've seen any of my downswings articles elsewhere in this online magazine (shameless plug), you'll probably agree that they're the absolute worst thing about playing poker. Finding ways to trivialise them is a great way to 'soften the blow' and make them a little easier to deal with. Singing a little 'down down deeper and down swing' while looking at your green line is a great way of laughing it off.
American Authors: Best Day of My Life - 2014
Terrible session at the tables last night? Massive headache from going a tad too wild at the bar? Perhaps you just found an expensive 4am international phone call on your bill? No sweat. If you ever needed a pre-registration pep talk, look no further – Today could be the best day of your life!
Justin Timberlake: Cry Me A River - 2002
Want to repay someone for a previous slow roll? Singing this gem after a gross river suck out should get the job done...
Justin Timberlake: What Goes Around - 2002
While we're on the topic of JT, here's another classic. Something to remind yourself if you're running bad or you're one of those (normal) guys that hates posting their blinds!
Motorhead: The Ace of Spades - 1980
I don't care what you say, I've spoken to my psychiatrist. He's assured me that it's totally 'normal' to sing Motorhead whenever you find the sexiest ace in the hole. (Even if it is a bit of a tell!) This metal anthem is a fantastic tune to get you back in the zone, either pre or mid-session. Aside from being an absolute classic, The Ace of Spades is littered with poker slang like this:
- “Pushing up the ante, I know you gotta see me.”
- “Read'em and weep, the dead man's hand again”.
- “I see it in your eyes, take one look and die The only thing you see, you know it's gonna be the Ace of Spades.”
In a song centring around gambling, living fast and 'dancing with the devil', we're habitually reminded that 'the pleasure is to play”, which is ultimately why we all started playing poker in the first place.
The Ace of Spades may be a rock anthem, but beneath the backbeat and guitar distortion is a bright and beautiful message of satisfaction and pleasure.
ABBA: The Winner Takes It All - 1980
Let's just say, I've never opened up a tournament lobby and thought “hmm I wonder what 11th pays”.
Rage Against The Machine: Know Your Enemy - 1992
Another metal song, it's inclusion in the list is mainly due to a combination of the importance of 'knowing your enemy' at the tables, and the pun potential of '[raging] against the machine' when you're on the wrong side of the RNG.
In any case, I once read a study which argued that listening to metal music in the car makes you a more aggressive driver, and I find the same applies to poker. With a big stack, deep in a tournament, it's time to crush. So, if know you're a little too timid in this spot, try whacking on this track and seeing if it helps raise your aggression.
Richard Ashcroft: Music is Power – 2006
I'll leave you with one more quote. It's not poker related, but I think it sums up what music means to us all, in general!